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Exclusive: A Conversation About Modern Dance With Pilobolus

Pilobolus has come a long way in the nearly 40 years since its humble beginnings in a college modern dance class. Founded by four guys with no prior dance experience, and named for a spore-shooting fungus that thrives in manure, Pilobolus is perhaps the most popular dance company performing today.

The Connecticut-based troupe, known for its shape-shifting human sculptures and daring acrobatics, regularly sells out performances around the world — its current run at the Joyce Theater included. And in the past decade or so, Pilobolus has expanded its reach beyond the concert stage, appearing in television commercials for companies like Mobil, Hyundai and Bloomingdales, a Marilyn Manson video, and the 2007 Academy Awards ceremony.

As is often the case, the road to success hasn’t always been smooth. Though Pilobolus was founded on principles of collaboration and is famous for its “choreography by committee” process, discord among its four artistic directors threatened to destroy the company in the early part of the decade. And in fact Alison Chase, who taught the modern dance class that spawned Pilobolus and was one of its artistic directors, left the company in 2005 amidst a bitter dispute about choreographic rights.

The company has also faced criticism for compromising artistic values with its various commercial projects, and there are those who question whether what Pilobolus does even qualifies as dance in the first place.

Today, three of the founders — Michael Tracy, Jonathan Wolken and Robby Barnett — remain as artistic directors, along with executive director Itamar Kubovy, who was brought on board in 2004 to help get the company back on track. This week, we talked with Kubovy and rehearsal director and artistic associate Renee Jaworski about the company’s unique place in the world of dance.

Flavorpill: The company has been doing seasons at the Joyce for more than 20 years now. How is this run going?

IK: The run is going terrifically well. There’s been an enormous diversity of people and great enthusiasm — hoots and hollers every night.

FP: You get this kind of response all over the world.

RJ: I would say we probably get it more than we don’t get it. Sometimes there’s a cultural difference, where the audience is a little more polite, or a little bit more quiet until the end.

IK: Renee trained and took one of our companies on a tour to Armenia and Georgia about a year ago. It was last fall, just after the most recent skirmish, and … it was the first time that modern dance was ever really there. And for everyone it was a religious experience. It’s just hard to know how the cultural encounter will go. It’s the most glorious when you think, “No one here will get us,” and then they go crazy.

Photo credit: John Kane

Photo credit: John Kane

FP: Why do you think so many people find Pilobolus so appealing?

IK: Hope.

RJ: It’s very accessible to people, on top of being very hopeful. And people can look at it and not be intimidated by the movement that we’re doing. It’s human. There’s a relationship onstage that’s easily accessible to everybody.

IK: There’s also something kind of aspirational about it. We had a couple of friends visiting from Germany … and they were saying that in German tradition so much of the way that art is done today is about critique — looking at some phenomenon in society and saying, “This is wrong,” or “Here’s how it fails.” And that conflict is obviously at the meat of all art, but at the same time, part of Pilobolus’ response to tragedy is not to avoid it but to believe that it is in the connection of the group that it can be overcome. So there’s a kind of utopian vision of how people support each other. We all want to live in that world where we fly into the air and other people will catch us before we fall. The redemption is the group. Your community, your friends, your family — that’s what keeps you in the air.

2b by Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollack; credit: John Kane

Photo credit: John Kane

FP: One of your initiatives has been to bring in collaborators, including guest choreographers. How does this process work?

IK: The basic idea for us is not to bring in people to set work on our company, but to bring people into contact with our culture and our process, and to have them put their imagination into it. It’s about forging a new vision that combines us and them, rather than asking them to impose their vision on us.

RJ: Part of the reason we started doing these collaborations is so that, not only can we spread or infect the dance world with the process that we do, but it kind of ignites things in our brains and spirits as well and keeps the company looking at new things that are relevant to things going on in the world. There is a constant desire on everybody’s part to be learning every day.

Photo credit: John Kane

Photo credit: John Kane

FP: What have been some of the most fun collaborations?

RJ: We got to work with a writer from SpongeBob SquarePants, Steven Banks. He’s a wonderful man, fun to work with, really imaginative and creative. And as a storyteller he really helped us with the narrative.

FP: This was the shadow piece, Dog•id?

IK: Yes. And we’re going to continue to develop it going forward. We’re going to expand it and continue our little tale. We’ve also worked with Maurice Sendak, and we’ve had an incredible coming together, now twice, with Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollack. That has been fascinating because it was a deep, deep engagement that has had a lasting effect on our company and their company. And we’ve worked with Basil Twist, the puppeteer.

FP: What kinds of people tend to audition for Pilobus? Are they dancers, athletes, both?

RJ: Everything. The people we are most interested in haven’t necessarily had dance training. I’m thinking of one person in the company who has zero training, but he’s trained as a martial artist. Another person was trained in theater but was an athlete as well — so that’s someone with a high movement intelligence and a theatrical background. Put those two things together and you get a very interesting collaborator who doesn’t look like anybody else in any other dance company.

FP: I’ve heard that it’s difficult for trained dancers to adjust to Pilobolus’ style. What kinds of things do they have to learn or unlearn?

RJ: A lot of it is the collaborative spirit. [In traditional training,] you’re very much on your own two feet and you’re expressing yourself through your body. But when you get into Pilobolus you have to start working with the people around you very differently. The nature of the partnering work forces you to kind of relax the muscles you’ve been training so hard to keep taut and long and lean and strong-looking. We’re less concerned with line than with motion and movement and exciting new things. We want people who are willing to release their brains so they can explore new movement and new relationships. It is a big un-training and retraining.

Photo credit: John Kane

Photo credit: John Kane

FP: The company works with a lot of non-dancers through the Pilobolus Institute. Can you describe what goes on in a typical workshop?

RJ: There are no typical workshops. It’s really dependent on the participants — just like when we’re working in the studio as a company, we kind of create a space in a workshop for people to explore the process that we use. We use a lot of improv, and we facilitate them to explore it. And then from that base, it can go in a million different directions. Some will start partnering with each other; some will do more interactive theatrical work. And we guide them in that journey and facilitate their exploration of our process.

FP: And how does that benefit the average person?

IK: Basically, we’ve spent a lot of years, like almost 40, making dances and working together. As you can imagine, that’s hard. You’re trying things, you’re rejecting them, you’re feeling small, you’re feeling proud. It’s a compression of living and working in a group. Everyone has to contend with those questions, those problems. We teach a workshop at Wharton Business school with MBA students … because we believe what we’re doing by bringing them into a dance studio is giving them a huge amount of instruction in a small amount of time about some of the real-world challenges of getting things done in groups.

FP: After all these years, people are still arguing about whether Pilobolus is dance. What do you say to that?

IK: What do you think about that question?

FP: Well, I think that people who question whether it is dance are looking at dance through a very narrow scope. I also think it’s a good thing for the company to be able to spark debate.

IK: I certainly agree with your answer. I also think that Pilobolus is so instrumental in the structuring of dance touring in this country. I remember having a conversation with Bill T. [Jones] in Europe a couple of years ago and he said, “Thank you guys for forging the way and bringing so many people into the theater, and opening up the world’s ideas about what is and isn’t dance, and creating space that other people with other interests can benefit from.” Well, he really just said thank you, but that’s how I understood it. Whether or not what we do is dance, there are a lot of things we do for the world of dance.

FP: I often hear that, for people who previously had no interest in dance, seeing Pilobolus inspired them to explore it a bit more.

IK: Well, if that’s the case then it seems like we’re dance. Or at least we’re doing the job of it.

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